For Major League Soccer to become a global power, it needs to become a development league for the rest of the world. Leagues like the Eredivisie in the Netherlands have found great success growing and exporting talent to Europe's biggest sides. But this can create a complicated challenge for MLS sides. While Ajax (whose Champions League matches you can catch on Paramount+) can both be a dominant force in the Dutch league and sell off the stars they develop, in MLS, the teams that have been good at development historically haven't won much.
FC Dallas, for example, has brought in a transfer profit of over $20 million in the past three years. They've found success selling Bryan Reynolds, Reggie Cannon and Tanner Tessmann to Europe. The problem is that the team has also been in decline during this time, ultimately missing the playoffs this season. Given the interest that current Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi is drawing from overseas, the decision-making hurdles may just be beginning for Dallas. But, this isn't necessarily about Dallas.
Some teams have enough money to buy players year after year to compete but after time even those teams fizzle out without help from their academies. The Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto FC and LAFC, three teams in flux this offseason, are good examples of what happens when you buy with no regard year after year. The Galaxy and Toronto even have solid academies, though you wouldn't know it from looking at their lineups on a regular basis as they instead spend millions of dollars on Designated Players who, when they don't perform, become contractual albatrosses in a salary cap league.
What the Philadelphia Union are showing is that perhaps the path to success is blending those two approaches. The Union defeated Nashville SC to reach the Eastern Conference finals where they'll take on the winner of New England against NYCFC on Sunday at 3 p.m. (stream via fubo TV -- Try for free). Union coach Jim Curtin alluded to how hard it is to have continued success when after the game he said, "We lost two Best XI players, we lost Ray Gaddis, but guys have seamlessly stepped in."
Curtin is referring to Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie moving abroad after the end of the Union's supporters-shield winning season last year. Aaronson went to RB Salzburg while McKenzie went to Genk. Just as both players began to firmly establish themselves in and around the national team setup the Union lost them to Europe, but they haven't missed a beat.
Replacing the two has been a group effort with Jakob Glesnes taking over at center back and the entire midfield stepping up to replace Aaronson. Leon Flach and Daniel Gazdag were purchased to fill the hole but homegrowns Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Paxten Aaronson (Brenden's younger brother) have also had to play major minutes with the Union competing in Concacaf Champions League and having international callups.
Jack McGlynn's penalty to ice their victory over Nashville was a poetic moment as it embodies the Union way.
A lot of resources have been poured into the Union's YSC Academy and the fruit is beginning to show. Even after "graduating" two of their top prospects to Europe, and trading a few more if you count Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty being dealt within the league in the past few years, homegrowns still accounted for slightly over nine percent of the total minutes played by the Union. And that's with Jack de Vries on loan with Venezia's youth side and Cole Turner loaned to the USL side El Paso Locomotive.
The contributions of homegrown players are one of the reasons why Jon Scheer was promoted from being the academy director of talent evaluation to the first team's director of scouting.
"He did a fantastic job in our academy, solidifying it as the backbone of our first team roster and an assessment center for players throughout the club," sporting director Ernst Tanner said of the move. "Jon's promotion is further proof that our academy is a top place in the country where young players as well as staff develop their careers."
The flexibility between youth and savvy veterans helped the Union be the final MLS team standing in the semifinals of CCL while also propelling them to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference with a conference final looming on Sunday. This is the vision that the Union have been selling for years, but with only U.S. Open Cup final disappointment to fall back on along with getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, it isn't easy to believe that success is possible.
But with the partnership between Curtin and Tanner, the sky is the limit in Philly. You can see a clear path to these homegrowns contributing more next season and keeping the trend of success going. This isn't to say that the Union shouldn't spend money, as the team is crying out for a top-tier striker (or they can give 22-year-old Ronaldo Damus a chance after he continues to destroy USL for Orange County SC) but that its easier to spend that money when books are balanced.
After last season's Supporters' Shield, bringing the Red Bull philosophy to MLS but without the organizational constraints of New York has set the Union on a path of success that could lead to two trophies in two years after zero in their first 12 years of existence. This is a blueprint that should also be repeatable no matter who is in charge now that the organizational groundwork has been laid.